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0 // HOW TO EAT AN ELEPHANT
WAY TO LIVE_PROLOGUE(0)
“What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Most of us have heard this phrase. It’s commonly attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid and human rights activist.
This phrase resonates with us because life feels big. Living life often feels like trying to eat an elephant. We make progress, the days are long, but the years are short. Although progress of every form has marked human history since its beginning, one question continues to gnaw at us no matter what era we were born into, our culture, our status, or any other way we try to define ourselves.
That question is, What is the way to live a good life?
You may phrase this question differently, but your question is most likely similar to mine. Where can we discover purpose, meaning and destiny? Is there such a thing? Is life meant to have meaning or are we just a heap of atoms who happen to exist at this present moment for no particular purpose? Figuring this out is like trying to eat an elephant.
Before we can look into this question and think through our answers, it’s important to consider what it takes to eat an elephant.
Elephants are the largest animals on the earth. They stand up to eleven feet tall and can weigh almost eight tons (16,000 lb.). Their skin can also be up to one inch thick in certain places.
Considering this, how long would it take you or I to kill an elephant? How long would it take for us to prepare an elephant to be eaten? Then, how long would it take us to actually eat it? There’s a lot that goes into the process of eating an elephant.
This is a helpful metaphor for what we are attempting to do with the big questions of life—specifically the question of how to live and what creates meaning for us.
I have good news. We don’t have to create a plan for how we eat an elephant. We just have to follow the one already made. Believe it or not, the plan itself is pretty obvious. Simple even. But simple ≠ easy.
As we know, throughout human history we have attempted to answer these big questions. Those who have come before us have made their attempts. We are making our attempts now. And in the future, those who come after us will try. So is human history. We are born to pursue eternal knowledge.
I think God knew this from the jump. I think he actually designed us this way. Why does this matter? Because in storytelling, the way a story is told matters just as much as the content of the story itself. God has been telling a story since the beginning of history. The story of history. The structure of this story is important because it helps us to clearly see the plan for how we eat the elephant.
The Apostle Paul says it this way in Romans 1:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. // Romans 1:20
Since the beginning of time, God has made himself clear. His qualities, nature and even his plan have played out over the entirety of human history. This plan provides a template for how we should live our lives today. This plan has been given to us in generation-sized chunks as we made progress and understood more. As Seneca told us, the things that seem ground-breaking and revelational to us now will be commonplace to those that come after us. And we cannot hope to fathom the discoveries that our descendants will uncover.[i]
There is a design, a plan that underpins the human story. We are on a road to somewhere. We may not know where, but the author of the plan does. Looking at the past, we can see the path previous generations have trod, the foundation they—and God—laid for us to build upon.
Simply, the plan looks like this.
I // Know God.
We must understand God has a plan for humanity as a whole and us individually.
II // Know yourself.
We must do what those before us have done for thousands of years: seek wisdom and understand what gives us meaning and purpose.
III // Decide your role.
We must determine what the impact of our life should be to the world around us.
This is just an introduction, so I’m not going to throw the elephant in front of you now and ask you to figure it out. But that’s the journey we will be taking. This is not a textbook, nor is it meant to be. What I write is my perspective, paraphrase and understanding. Ultimately, you should determine for yourself the way you want to live, and this book is meant to help you on that journey. Building your philosophy of life requires work on your part. There is an appendix of works I have been inspired by at the end of this book. Use this for supplemental reading if you want to look further into some of the topics I discuss in this book.
Finally, these thoughts—just like any philosophy—are always changing and will always require updates and revisions. It will never be finished because there is always a better way. A better way to think, a better way to act and a better way to live.